Intimate details for all to see

Tue, May 26, 2009, 01:00

Cork GP Dr Pixie McKenna has a starring role in a TV programme featuring people with embarrassing illnesses, writes RONAN MCGREEVY

DR PIXIE McKenna is a busy woman. Having a GP family practice in her native Cork would be enough for any self-respecting doctor to be getting on with.

In her case, the workload also involves a busy practice in London’s Baker Street and a star turn on Embarrassing Illnesses, the phenomenally successful Channel 4 medical programme.

Earlier this month she spent Monday in London, Tuesday in Benidorm filming, Wednesday in Cambridge, Thursday in Cork, Friday morning in London and Friday afternoon in Suffolk.

“Something’s got to give, probably my sanity,” she says. Stansted Airport is like a second home. “I haven’t got a free ticket from Michael O’Leary yet for all the flying I’ve done with him.”

McKenna (37) has been a constant presence on Embarrassing Illnesses since it first aired in 2006.

It is visceral, in-your-face and invariably explicit. No ailment, however grotesque, is left unexamined, no part of the anatomy left unexposed. Haemorrhoids, bad breath, erectile dysfunction and various unsightly skin diseases are tackled with a frankness which the unsuspecting viewer could find stomach-churning.

Viewers gasp as patients expose their most intimate bits, in various states of decrepitude, to the wider world. It’s watching-through-the-cracks-of-your-fingers stuff much of the time, but the public can’t get enough of it.

This year’s series, the most successful to date, has averaged over three million viewers, making it Channel 4’s second most successful programme.

McKenna’s real name is Bernadette Anne. She got the name Pixie from a comic that her elder brothers were reading when she was born.

She grew up in a medical family. Her father, Dr Jim McKenna, ran his GP practice in Glasheen Road, Cork, until his retirement in 2005. She now runs it one day a week.

Three of her four brothers are in the medical profession including Johnny, an orthopaedic surgeon. He operated recently on Ireland’s unfortunate scrum-half Tomás O’Leary who will miss the Lions tour because of a fractured ankle.

“The home phone was always going when we were children and we were forever taking messages,” she recalls. “My mother used to say to us that if anybody rang who had a pain in their chest going down their arm, they should ring 999.”

She graduated from UCC as a doctor in 1995 and could have done her GP training in Cork, but opted instead for Cambridge where her father’s cousin practises as a doctor.

“I knew if I did it in Cork, I would stay there and do nothing different for the next 40 years.”

Her unlikely foray into television came as a result of a failed audition for Channel 4’s Turn Back Your Body Clockprogramme.

A producer on that programme asked her to do something for a new programme on BBC 3 called Freaky Eatersbefore Channel 4 came calling again.

McKenna says Embarrassing Illnessesis “good public-service broadcast really done in a fun and interesting way”. Its website, which contains detailed information and contacts for various ailments, won a Bafta last year for interactive content. It has received 20 million hits and counting.

“You can imagine that a little girl from Cork attending medical school never thought she’d be on a stage getting a Bafta.”

People, she believes, suffer needlessly with embarrassing problems which a doctor could sort out in five minutes. On the other hand, serious infections and tumours can go unchecked because of the same reluctance to see a doctor.

“A lot of people say ‘why do you need to show that’, but the reality is that the whole reason that people don’t go to the doctor is because we’re not talking about these sorts of things and, therefore, people are at home thinking ‘I’m the only with piles’ or ‘what are those things growing out of here’ or ‘why does that look the way it does?’ ”

She puts the success of the programme down to its earthy realism, real people with real diseases, and not to any sense of the voyeur.

“We’ve established the brand and people know what we are about, but I find it extraordinary that anybody would be a fan of something that is so gory. It’s a medical programme, it’s not a soap opera or a comedy programme, but people are fascinated by medical stuff and what goes on in other people’s lives.”

Some critics of the programme have said it is too explicit and potentially exploitative though she confesses surprise at how few complaints there are overall given the explicit nature of much of the material. “If it was aired on RTÉ, there would be more phone-calls and complaints,” she says.

Last year one questioned how a woman, who was too embarrassed to show her lopsided breasts to her husband, had no compunction about showing them to a national TV audience.

“It is a difficulty in the sense that people need to realise it’s on television in front of three million people and that has consequences,” McKenna explains.

People, she believes, are so desperate that they will swap 90 seconds of intimate television exposure to have their ailments sorted out.

“All of our patients are psychologically assessed, they all require a referral from their GPs, they are all seen by us as doctors and by consultants. At least three doctors are involved and nothing goes to air unless we have all said ‘that’s alright, we’re happy with that’.”

The programme frequently deals with vulnerable patients without exposing them to television. “We have safety nets and we’ve expanded those safety nets as the programme has got bigger.”

Embarrassing Illnesseshas become almost a franchise and the workload has expanded considerably with a number of spin-offs which include an Embarrassing Illnesses for Teenagersand an Embarrassing Illnesses Revisited. They are currently filming an Embarrassing Illnesses for Elderly People.

It has been effectively a full-time workload since last July, but McKenna says she cannot give up clinical practice.

“You couldn’t do it full-time. You have to remain within clinical medicine otherwise you are not up to date because medicine changes all the time. I love the telly but I love the patients as well.”

She does a slot on The Ray D’Arcy Showevery month, but believes Ireland is too small to have a programme like Embarrassing Illnesses.

“Everybody knows everybody. We know how the gossip community happens in Ireland. The population of the UK is massive and you can disappear.”

Although she acknowledges it is rather an ironic comment given her very public role as a television medic, she appreciates the anonymity of living in the UK and has no plans to move back to Ireland full-time.

“Having come from a place like Cork, having looked at how my father worked, it is very hard to have your own space and people know you and they are saying, ‘oh hello, doctor, my piles are better’.

“I like the anonymity of the UK. People base their opinions of you on what you have done, what you have achieved and how you are rather than in Ireland where they might say, ‘are you so-and-so’s daughter’ and they have a preconceived opinion of you.